Thursday, February 15, 2007

Valentine's Day; On Entertainment

Valentine's Day

Yesterday was Valentine's Day, and I was glad to spend it with my wife, Hayden. It's fun that the culture has a holiday set aside for romantic love. We had Tandoori Chicken, using spices from Penzey's, and Lima-Tomato Curry, with rice. We're big fans of Indian vegetable dishes.

Entertainment (again)

I'm starting to think that my thing about entertainment is likely some form of arrogance. I consume plenty of entertainment; sometimes I even feel like I'm educated by it. (And I'm given to understand that learning is a good thing, though I don't know any basic, moral or rational argument that learning is fundamentally good. It just seems good.) Maybe I think myself above entertainers? But they're God's creation, too; I'm no better than they are. Even if they choose to do things that are not "useful" in some base sense of providing food, shelter, clothing, and telecommunications -- I'm still not superior.

Or I'm put off by the large amounts of money that people collectively spend to watch people pretend to be things they're not. Entertainment has been good for me financially; much Internet use is based on entertainment, and much of my work goes into getting Internet Services Providers to work right. Money is a person's private property, and he should be free to spend it as he sees fit. If a person does something, such as records a song, that lots of people are willing to pay to hear, then there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the choice that those lots of people make to pay to hear the song.

Or perhaps there's a dose of asceticism in there; because it's enjoyable, it might be wrong. Enjoyment itself seems to be fine, according to the Bible and common sense.

Maybe I feel like I'm wasting my time when I'm entertained. But I feel like I need a diversion from work sometimes. Perhaps I'm arrogant to think that I should be productive all of the time. But is it productivity I'm after? That's not the greatest good. Perhaps it's some sort of service to God that I feel is lacking in the time.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Entertainment

I'm starting to wonder if I have some basic problem with entertainment. I like entertainment; I consume a good bit of it. But I'm not completely convinced that I ought to be. And I'm not sure what my obligations are to select entertainment in the context of the producer.

E.g., the Dixie Chicks won a bunch of awards lately -- Grammy Awards. The awards are being interpreted as a political statement, because one of the members of the Dixie Chicks commercial enterprise said some politically-charged things about the current U.S. President. Is it entertainment, or is it politics? Or is the politics the part of the entertainment -- to make them modern rebels?

All The Worst

"My company must be the worst."

I've worked with folks from several different telephone companies in my tenure with ECG. And, without fail, every time I meet someone who is convinced that they have the worst company of them all. Only rarely do they point to specific problems. Of course, a problem always seems worse when it's amorphous, poorly defined, and completely frustrating.

It's made me appreciate my own gig, for one thing. I'm sure I'd be doomed to a lot of the same skepticism anywhere I went. And it's made me realize my own tendency to do the same thing about my current job. It's helped me to try to be more specific about my grievances.

The annoying thing is that when I'm specific about my grievances, they're actually tractable. And, in several cases, we've been able to get them fixed.

I remember in November of 2004, I had just gotten married. I was spending way too much time away from home on a project. For me, "too much time away from home" meant more than 25% travel; but I'll admit that nonzero travel was annoying. Every time I'm away for very long, I tend to get grumbly and start thinking about monster. But in that case, I made a list of some specific things that were really bugging me.

One of them was just the noise. I felt like a wuss. The general work environment was just noisy, but they guys I worked with seemed to be getting plenty done. But I admitted to myself, and later to my boss, that it just wasn't working out. It was frustrating. I had a hard time not focusing on the loud conversation around me. And another thing! I needed some private space -- this was related to the noise, but, dernit, I just wanted some space.

My boss grumped a bit about it, said there wasn't a lot he could do, but in small ways started to help me find a better arrangement. Before long, I actually had a little bathroom-sized office to my self, complete with a door! It was an odd feeling -- I had actually complained about something, and the situation had improved. It was downright amazing.

I visited another telephone company today. Like most of my customers, the guys I work with (and believe me: there are almost no women in my meetings) are very technical, have lots of transferrable skills, and are "getting" to do interesting and innovative things with next-generation IP services like VoIP and IP Television. But there are always things that bug them, that get under their skin. The things make them want to leave. They want to go somewhere where they'll be respected. I wonder -- if they made a list, and made some noise, and really tried to make it better, could they?

A related thought is this -- what is it that makes a person feel like his own company is so bad? In their great book about Software Developers, PeopleWare Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister say that a programmer is satisfied only when his system is as good as the best he's ever made. I.e., a personal minimum standard of quality for software is to match his own personal maximum of quality. That rings true.

I wonder if I apply the same standard to the organizations where I work. And further, I do it in a fine-grained way, picking-and-choosing bests from different past experiences, and evaluating the current situation against a fruit-salad of favorites. And more damning still, I tend to compare my situation against ideas and ideals -- things I've seen elsewhere, and even my ideals for how it ought to be.

But then, it's good to remember that, as Fred Brooks teaches and Kenneth Barnard wrote, organization itself is an unnatural thing. That my current situation provides any efficiencies over independent effort is something to be thankful for.




MetaSwitch, an equipment vendor, is making many friends. They are highly respected, and they're known for sending out smart folks. I've recently heard from a couple of my clients that several other vendors, such as Cisco, are willing to send out sales-guy-who's-been-through-product-training (a.k.a., "sales engineer") when a person with actual experience and expertise is expected.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Reading as Entertainment

I'm not convinced that all reading is worthwhile. It seems schools
are always getting kids to read. And that's fine. But isn't some
reading just entertainment?

I've been reading the "Left Behind" series of books lately; they're
scienceish-fiction about life and times after the rapture of all
Christians. I've been almost embarrassed by it, because it just seems
like fun. I don't think I'm learning many new word; I'm not sure I'm
improving my grammar, nor my knowledge of geography. The opinions
about the end times match what I've learned about the book of
Revelation from the Bible.

The same goes for the Tom Clancey book I read. It was fun, but I
don't know that I learned anything.

Why is reading extolled so much? Literacy certainly is good;
it's a useful skill. When a school of kids reads hundreds of books
over the summer, the school may celebrate. That seems fine -- but did
the kids really learn anything? Or were they just reading fluffy stuff?

In Hayden's Uncle Steve West's recent blog entry, Thinking Locally, Acting Locally?, he mentions that USA Today seems about like watching TV. I agree; in
fact, I've noticed that much of the news in USA Today lags NPR and
the News & Observer by a day or two. (Maybe that's because it's
distributed by satellite, and the satellites are so far away.)

Is reading just another form of entertainment that can be compared
with watching television or playing a video game?

And is entertainment good or bad?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Educating adults

I finished up a technical training course today. The intention of the training was to ensure that the people who attended it would be able to successfully deploy the VoIP service and maintain it. This effort is in turn reduced to educating them about that platform and the technology it's built on. That end is then effected by me traveling to stand at the front of a room near them, project text onto a screen at the front of the room, and talk. In addition to talking, the people who attended it also had a workbook with some exercises, and at certain points they were to do the work prescribed.

I don't think I know much about what I'm doing. I don't have any mechanism to monitor the effectiveness of what I did with respect to the ultimate goal -- i.e., these people solving problems, deploying the system, etc. I don't have a good feedback mechanism on that part.

I did get some nice comments from the attenders. But that could have been just politeness. I'll bet I could have done a lot worse, and still gotten some nice comments.

Here's what I know about training:

  • People need some time to hear things and let it be absorbed.

  • People need to ask questions when they're learning something. If they don't ask any questions, they're probably not learning anything. It's healthy for them to ask a question for which the answer is exactly what I thought I just said.

  • People need to do exercises. You can watch mathematics being done and follow it, but that doesn't mean you'll be able to do it. Just watching something being done is entertainment. So people really learn the most when they actually attempt to do it.

  • People need breaks every hour or so.

  • A topic isn't interesting just because I'm giving training about it. An attender's interest in the topic has to come from somewhere else.


    
    I think I definitely need to learn some more.
  • Wednesday, February 07, 2007

    On training; and excellent food in Las Vegas

    Education. I'm in Las Vegas again; this time doing more training on Voice over IP (VoIP) for another service provider here. I just had a thought today: the idea of training is to educate people. But I naively think of education as happening mostly when I say the information that I want the students to learn. Just because I say it, does that make them educated? Just because the information is conveyed verbally, does information conveyance accomplish education?

    I know students in my training courses seem generally satisfied. I've never gotten a complaint, but have gotten some positive comments. But why? Is it because they're able to work with VoIP systems more effectively, or just because they feel trained? How much of the positive feeling is because they got a break from the regular routine?

    I think I need to learn more about education.




    Good eating. When Hayden came with me to Las Vegas once, she scouted out some really good restaurants here -- all local places, and all off of "the strip". My favorite is Lotus of Siam. I went tonight, and actually had to wait a bit for a table -- it was the first time for me to have to wait. I don't think any customers at Lotus were dressed up; most were in casual jeans and khakis (or equivalent female costumes representing ease); some were in shorts. The wait staff moved about quickly, rapidly cleaning tables as folks depart, reorganizing for larger parties. They seem to fill in for each other -- I've never been serviced by only one waiter at Lotus. It's casual, but seems very efficient.

    And the food is really good. It's almost as good as eating home cookin'. Tonight, I got Tom Kah Kai soup, which they describe as having sliced chicken in coconut milk, with straw mushrooms, glanga, lemon grass and some lime. It's sort of orange and yummy. I then got Nua Yum Katiem, a dish of sliced charbroiled beef on sliced cabbage, made with fresh garlic and spicy tamarind sauce. I eat it with rice. The beef and sauce was great, too. And, of course, I always have to get dessert: Coconut ice cream with sticky rice. The sticky rice is slightly warm, and the coconut ice cream seems to be made entirely of coconut milk. It's also excellent.